“Watching the Watcher: An American Community’s Response to Islamophobia”
The Feeling of Being Watched is a documentary film by journalist Assia Boundaoui about her family’s and her community’s experiences as subjects of an extensive FBI surveillance operation in Bridgeview, IL. It lasted for years, included the surveillance of hundreds of people, and ultimately did not result in any terrorism or criminal convictions. The film is about the process of uncovering the existence of this operation through various means. It has an ethnographic feel to it, including conversations with her family and community members about their memories and experiences growing up in Bridgeview. It also includes interviews with journalists and government officials, and documents the process of putting in Freedom of Information Access requests to the government, and ultimately the lawsuit that results in the release of the requested documents relating to her family.
The securitization of Muslims is not new; it has been ongoing for the past 17 years of the war on terror (Jamil 2014, 2017). The significant point in this case is that the perception of the entire Arab community in Bridgeview as “suspicious” pre-dated 9/11. The original FBI investigation took place in the 1990s. The American political context after September 2001 facilitated the resuscitation of this operation on a massive scale, on the basis of the Islamophobic hysteria that was reanimated and has since become normalized today. Thus, this film contextualizes historically the longstanding existence of Islamophobia and xenophobia in America.
At one level, the film is about the Boundaoui family, their neighbors, and their community. But actually, it is a film about the power of the state and its impact on them as citizens. Because it covers a long period of time, both in terms of the original surveillance operation and the amount of time it took to make the film (5 years), it allows us to see that naming of power as a process. This naming is powerful. It evokes pushback from the FBI and other government agencies and individuals. She and her family get unexpected visits or phone calls from FBI agents. One interviewee denies that the FBI operation was motivated by Islamophobia, or that anything out of the ordinary happened. Boundaoui comments at various points in the film how she feels that she and her family are still being watched.
Boundaoui begins the film by referring to Foucault’s idea of the panopticon. Its power lies in the ability to see without being seen. It creates subjects through this perpetual gaze, rendering them self-consciously hypervisible as they internalize the gaze and become complicit in monitoring their own behavior (Foucault 1995 ). In the concluding scenes of the film, she goes to a nearby prison, the only American prison built on the panopticon model, and stands under the watchtower, looking up at the guard who, presumably, is looking down at her. Her point is to return the gaze, to make visible the fact that she is being watched and that she is looking back.
The film is a metaphor for this returning of the gaze, of being the watcher and not the watched. Making the film is an expression of agency for Assia, her family and community, and all those who participated with her in its creation. It is an expression of agency in the sense of making transparent what happened, of talking about the fear, paranoia and secrecy associated with growing up in Bridgeview, and of making visible government actions.
There is also an odd tension here because this is a film. The audience is invited to become the watcher as well: those who watch the film are also watching the watcher being watched. But they are also invited into the moral position that Assia is taking through this film – of naming injustice and for acting to holding the government accountable for it. Thus, the position of agency that Aasia takes is also available to the audience.
This issue of agency is significant precisely because there is so little of it given to Muslims. Islamophobia denies agency (Sayyid 2014) and limits the space available to Muslims to be anything other than who they are declared to be in these public, political and media discourses. Xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism come together to declare Muslims as “terrorists” and threats in the form of immigrants and refugees who are “outsiders” to the nation. The usual response to this is to declare that they are not what they are perceived as being – that they are nice, good, peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
This desire to prove their normality is understandable, but ultimately limited in its effectiveness. Boundaoui illustrates through this film that Muslims will never be able to prove that they are “normal enough” because the issue is not about the correction of individuals with negative views of Muslims. Rather, the institutionalization of Islamophobia is in the way that the system works, but which is not named as such (hence the many denials, delays and gaslighting tactics used by the government officials she encounters). Thus, to resist this institutionalized Islamophobia is to name it, to document it, and then act to change the way it works, in this case, through community organizing and legal avenues.
Despite the success of her lawsuit to get the FBI to release the documents in her FOIA request, the success seems incomplete. Boundoui stated that about 70% of the documents received are whited out, with large blocks of blank space covering up the text. This reminded me of the book written by former Guantanamo prisoner, Mohamadou Ould Slahi, about his prison experiences and which was ultimately published with black bars indicating passages censored by the US government (Slahi 2015). This censorship is another example of the assertion of state power, but it raises an interesting question: what does it mean to make public these blank spaces, even as the goal of publicizing these documents is also to make visible how power works and to hold it accountable?
Boundaoui said that she will be working with Open Documentary Lab at MIT to use historic government records on the surveillance of other American communities to try to fill in some of these gaps. We know, for example, of COINTELPRO, which investigated Black activists in the 1970s. These records are no longer classified because the 40 year moratorium on them has expired. The goal is to find patterns in the practices, methods and tactics used by the FBI and other agencies in previous surveillance operations. Muslims are not the first racialized community to be seen as a threat; they are not exceptional. This continuity is important to note because it illustrates how contemporary Islamophobia is built on a long history of institutionalized and systemic racism in the US. Thus, the focus of attention should not be on proving what Muslims are/are not, but on how the power of the state has been used to mark racialized minority groups as threats at different points in time.
In conclusion, this film is part of a broader political shift towards unveiling how power works in western countries implicated in the war on terror, with the aim of holding the government accountable, especially in the contemporary political context. Snowden, whose revelations of US government practices were on a much bigger scale, put forward to Americans the question: were they willing to condone mass surveillance by their own government in the name of national security (Greenwald 2014)? Assia Boundaoui’s unambiguous answer to that question, as an American, is no.
Foucault, M. 1995 . Discipline and Punish. Transl. Alan Sheridan. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Greenwald, G. 2014. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Signal, McLelland and Stewart.
Jamil, U. 2014. Reading Power: Muslims in the War on Terror Discourse. Islamophobia Studies Journal. 2(2): 29-42.
—–. 2017. How Muslims Became Corn. ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. 2(2): 175-189.
Sayyid, S. 2014. Measuring Islamophobia. Islamophobia Studies Journal. 2(1): 10-25.
Slahi, M. O. 2015. Guantanamo Diary. Larry Siems (ed.). Edinburgh: Canongate Books.